The Secret Tomb of the First Chinese Emperor

The Secret Tomb of the First Chinese Emperor Remains an Unopened Treasure

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The tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, despite being involved in one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all times, endures as a mystery to archaeologists and historians as it remains largely sealed up and unexplored. The strange and deadly history of the tomb and its contents was sealed within and buried beneath vegetation for thousands of years.

The two decades following 218 B.C. was a period of instability in the Mediterranean, as the Roman Republic went to war with the Carthaginians. In the Far East, by contrast, this period was relatively stable, as a unified China emerged from the chaos of the Warring States Period. Qin Shi Huang was the man responsible for uniting the seven warring states to form the first imperial dynasty of China. The first emperor of China was as obsessed with life as he was with the afterlife. Whilst occupied with the search for the elixir of immortality, Qin Shi Huang was also busy building his tomb.

As a matter of fact, the construction of the emperor’s tomb began long before Qin Shi Huang became the first Chinese emperor. When Qin Shi Huang was 13 years old, he ascended the throne of Qin, and immediately began building his eternal resting place. It was only in 221 B.C., however, when Qin Shi Huang successfully unified China that full-scale construction would begin, as he then commanded manpower totaling 700,000 from across the country. The tomb, located in Lintong County, Shaanxi Province, took over 38 years to complete, and was only finished several years after his death.

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. Public Domain

An account of the construction of Qin Shi Huang’s tomb and its description can be found in the Records of the Grand Historian, which was written by the Han dynasty historian, Sima Qian. According to this source, Qin Shi Huang’s tomb contained ‘palaces and scenic towers for a hundred officials’, as well as numerous rare artifacts and treasures. In addition, the two major rivers of China, the Yangtze and the Yellow River, were simulated in the tomb using mercury. The rivers were also set mechanically to flow into the great sea. Whilst the rivers and other features of the land were represented on the floor of the tomb, its ceiling was decorated with the heavenly constellations. Thus, Qin Shi Huang could continue to rule over his empire even in the afterlife. To protect the tomb, the emperor’s craftsmen were instructed to make traps which would fire arrows at anyone who entered the tomb.

Painted portrait of historian Sima Qian

Painted portrait of historian Sima Qian, Public Domain

Qin Shi Huang’s funeral was conducted by his son, who ordered the death of any concubines of the late emperor who did not have sons. This was done in order to provide company for Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife. When the funerary ceremonies were over, the inner passageway was blocked, and the outer gate was lowered, so as to trap all the craftsmen in the tomb. This was to ensure that the workings of the mechanical traps and the knowledge of the tomb’s treasures would not be divulged. Finally, plants and vegetation were planted on the tomb so it resembled a hill.

Tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang is covered by vegetation and resembles a hill.

Tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang is covered by vegetation and resembles a hill. Wikimedia, CC

Although a written record regarding Qin Shi Huang’s tomb was already in existence roughly a century after the emperor’s death, it was only re-discovered in the 20 th century (whether the tomb has been robbed in the past, however, is unknown). In 1974, a group of farmers digging wells in Lintong County dug up a life-size terracotta warrior from the ground. This was the beginning of one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all times. Over the last four decades, about 2000 terracotta warriors have been uncovered. It is estimated, however, that a total of between 6000 and 8000 of these warriors were buried with Qin Shi Huang. Furthermore, the terracotta army is but the tip of the iceberg, as the emperor’s tomb itself remains unexcavated.

Terracotta Warriors and Horses, is a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Xi'an, China

Terracotta Warriors and Horses, is a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Xi'an, China. Wikimedia, CC

Numerous elaborate artifacts have been recovered around the site, such as this chariot and horses found outside of the tomb mound.

Numerous elaborate artifacts have been recovered around the site, such as this chariot and horses found outside of the tomb mound. Wikimedia, CC

It is unlikely that the tomb of Qin Shi Huang will be opened any time soon. For a start, there are the tomb’s booby traps, as mentioned by Sima Qian. Despite being over two millennia old, it has been argued that they would still function as effectively as the day they were installed. Furthermore, the presence of mercury would be incredibly deadly to anyone who entered the tomb without appropriate protection. Most importantly, however, is the fact that our technology at present would not be adequate to deal with the sheer scale of the underground complex and the preservation of the excavated artifacts. As a case in point, the terracotta warriors were once brightly painted, though exposure to the air and sunlight caused the paint to flake off almost immediately. Until further technological advancements have been made, it is unlikely that archaeologists will risk opening the tomb of the first emperor of China.

Comments

I didn't see anywhere in this text that said he was a "Great Historian" it said Grand Historian,
and it certainly looks as if nothing has really changed the press and most historians just do the same thing now, so let me ask you where did you get your facts and are you sure they are true?

He was likely the greatest peacemaker and nation builder the world has ever seen. But in achieving power he offended (and disenfranchised) the Confucians who had controlled the imperial court for centuries. They plotted for his downfall from Day I. I'm not suggesting they assassinated him by poisoning, but it did not take them long to assume full power after his death. And yes, his successors - 100 years later - wrote the history that claimed he was a tyrant and murdered millions.

Ok, I believe I'm a little confused here. Are you debating on whether he was a brutal tyrant that enslaved and killed millions under the guise of debtors prison for his building projects or that it's all a lie and he was really a nice guy and his own people were the bad guys so they poisoned him with mercury because in reality they hated him so much they wanted him to live forever ?!??

China has a huge problem with Qin Shi Huang - and it now does with Mao. The questions are the same for both: What is the truth of their lives and accomplishments? Did they build or break the Chinese people? Where would "China" be without their having lived?

I tend to believe the official line about the tomb though. China does not have the resources or technology to open it. The sad thing is that if they did open it today, they would not understand what they were seeing - because they are convinced what it is (which is my argument). Qin Shi Huang has been portrayed - for over 2000 years - as the ultimate in waste, extravagance, tyranny and violence. It would be impossible today for them to see him as the world's greatest peace maker and nation builder. Which he was.

Tsurugi's picture

Thanks for the reply, and I see what you're saying. It is true that having only one source--and a non-contemporary source at that--is usually considered weak evidence, at best. Not in this case, apparently.

At the risk of sounding somewhat conspiratorially minded, I wonder if this might be one of the reasons they have not actually breached the tomb itself. The Chinese authorities are very carefully managing the historical record found through archaeology within their borders, and the older the site, the more cautious they become. Perhaps they prefer the writings of the "Great Historian" and do not wish to damage his credibility with facts.

I am a student of Sun Tzu, by the way. At least I try to be. I have a much-thumbed copy of The Art of War, and I glean something new from it every time I open it.

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